scholastica: the fortress and the ecosystem


I’m sorry for the lack of posted homilies for a while now. Our website was under construction for a while, I had to do some traveling, and we have gone through a pretty trying time here at New Camaldoli between sickness, a death (our Fr. Ray passed away Wednesday morning after a very serious illness) and natural phenomenon (heavy rains causing massive rock and mud slides causing closed roads, see on the left, called Paul’s Slide, just to the south of us). I’ll try to catch up.

The last time I preached on St. Scholastica, three years ago, I used one of my favorite metaphors––the energy and the vessel. Benedict, the masculine, represents the vessel––the institution, the Rule (and the rules); whereas Scholastica, the feminine, represents the energy––relationship, love, and warmth, as well as the body and the earth. We obviously need both: without the energy the vessel is an empty shell; but without the vessel the energy is simply chaos. We of course have spoken about that for ourselves in our Camaldolese context: Saint Romuald’s example as the charismatic energy, but an energy that he left us in the vessel of the Benedictine monastic tradition, to nurture the energy and safeguard it.

This time I used another one of my favorite metaphors (yet again): the fortress and the ecosystem.

I so love the reading from the Book of the Prophet Hosea that we use today,[i] just two short little verses: I will lure her into the wilderness and there I will speak tenderly to her. Though, I must admit, I do like the old NAB translation better: I will lead her into the desert and there I will speak to her heart. Of course they are pretty much synonymous, the desert and the wilderness, in scriptural language. I will lead you into the wild untamed places, into the place of total dependency, into the place where your self-reliance doesn’t work anymore, the place where you need to depend on a power greater than yourself, a place where you have no cell phone service or WiFi. (I bring that up because the last young man that was here for the Ora et Labora program specifically wrote in a card that he left, “Being in a pace with no WiFi/cell service really makes me reflect deep about what I want in life and who is important to me. It also makes me go deeper into my relationship with God.”) I think it’s worth noting that God leads Moses and Elijah, the men, up to the top of a mountain and disappears either into in a cloud of thick darkness or sheer silence; but the prophet Hosea leads God’s bride Israel into the desert and speaks to her heart.

What is the desert? For one thing, as Fr. Deiss wrote: May you yourself prepare in the wilderness of our hearts the path of your return. We know that we find the real desert when we make the interior journey, to the desert of our hearts. Or, I might add, though maybe it’s the same thing, as Thomas Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion.” Or, as I’ve said before, this passage is also a marvelous image of the monastic cell––and that is where Scholastica spent her life, not in a physical wilderness––and a beautiful metaphor for solitude: the cell and solitude are meant to be both a desert and a bridal chamber, the place of testing and trial as well as––and maybe before it becomes––the place of the mystical marriage.

So this time I want to say that Scholastica and this desert-wilderness also represent the ecosystem as opposed to the fortress. To recall where I got this from: a fortress is this very sturdy masculine image, something built strong and unchanging, immoveable on a high, dry, solid spot; as opposed to the feminine image of a living ecosystem such as a swamp, a marsh, or the wilderness that is constantly changing, constantly calling for adaptation and evolution.

Maybe we think that we will choose a vocation––or a community, or a relationship or a career––and it is going to be like a fortress. And if something goes wrong or not-according-to-plan we simply have to apply some kind of technical solution, call in the stonemason or the plumber or the IT tech or the doctor with a bunch of pills to make things the way we think they are “supposed” to be, to fix it. But that don’t work in an ecosystem, in a swamp, in the wilderness, or in real life, because things are always growing and changing. Not everything can be fixed, some things are supposed to change-evolve, and others are supposed to die and give way to new life.

Hunter (our young friend here for Ora et Labora) and I were trekking through Lime Kiln Canyon the other day, both of us sure that this certain trail led up to Twitchell’s Flat, and it turns out later that we were indeed on the right trail. But everything looked different at that moment. The trails were covered over with fallen trees and debris, the creek was so high that the normal places to cross were gone and it was rushing so fast and was so deep that it would have been dangerous to cross. There’s nothing wrong with fallen trees and a swollen creek. There was nothing to fix. That’s what the woods look like after days of rain. It’s an ever-changing ecosystem. I will lead you into Lime Kiln Canyon, and there I will speak to your heart. Are you really willing to depend on me alone? Are you willing to blaze a new trail? Just as in relationships, be they individual ones or communal ones, we’re always being asked, “Are you willing to grow with me, endure with me?”

The rockslides that we are experiencing these days are another good reminder, as are forest fires and winter rains and earthquakes. We think we are in control. We think we have “dominion over the earth!” We here at New Camaldoli do not live in a fortress, even if it’s a high and, for most of the year, a seemingly dry place. We live on an active landslide on top of another active landslide. I loved singing Psalm 45 the other night (and I looked over and caught Raniero’s eye at the same time) and again at Vigils just this morning: … so we shall not fear though the earth should rock, / though the mountains fall into the depth of the sea; / even though its waters rage and foam, / even though the mountains be shaken by its waves. / The Lord of hosts is with us; / the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Our strength has to lie someplace else; we have to trust in something deeper even than the foundations of the earth; our security has to lie in Someone else. I will lead you onto the Big Sur coast, and there I will speak to your heart. Are you really willing to depend on me alone?

Fr. Ray’s death Wednesday morning is another good reminder. His biggest disappointment, it seems, and he said it to me several times, was that he had worked so hard for the Monastery of the Risen Christ to survive and had waited three years for it and he himself to be accepted into the Camaldolese congregation, and he really wanted to see it thrive in its new phase. And everyone keeps noting the beautiful poetry of it: he died within a month of the finalization of all that. “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.” Like St. Benedict’s plan to head back to his fortress and St. Scholastica instead wanting to ride out the storm and spend the night in holy colloquy.

Life is messy. Love is messy. Our vocations are messy. God leads us into the wilderness and it is there, in that place of total dependency that God speaks to our heart. When we are emptied completely and sit waiting the still small voice of the Spirit can speak and be heard above the waters that rage and foam. Because it is there and then, when we are indeed emptied and dependent, that God will speak to our hearts.

[i] Hos 2:16-17a; in the NRSV it’s 2:14-15a.

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1 Comment

  1. Like the image of the vessel, the energy, the swamp, the eco system. Have been holding you all in the desert cave of my heart…in the embrace of the Mother…
    am trying to decide whether to attempt to come for Fr Ray’s wake and funeral…so good to have your words again and know you are holding strong!

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